The reinstatement of the sacked 647 Lindsey oil refinery (LOR) workers, with offers of work for the 51 whose redundancies sparked the walk-out at dozen of energy plants around Britain, is a triumph of rank-and-file solidarity over trade union bureaucrats, who have allowed mass unemployment to develop virtually unopposed.
Not far from the LOR plant in North Killingholme, Lincolnshire, are the Corus steelworks in Scunthorpe, Sheffield and Rotherham. Last week, the company announced the loss of another 2,000 jobs on top of the 2,500 made earlier in the year. All that the steel union Community could say was that workers were “devastated” by the news. Of any plan to resist the redundancies, which will destroy communities if they take place, there was not a word. And there won’t be.
As for the position of the union leaders in general, their craven position was summed up by a press release from the Trades Union Congress, which declared “Barber to tell Berlusconi to put jobs first in run up to G8 summit”.
This was a reference to a meeting involving TUC general secretary Barber and the deeply reactionary Italian prime minister, urging the forthcoming G8 summit chair to build “on the positive proposals in the London G20 summit declaration”. Not a spoof press release, simply shocking but true.
The outcome of the LOR strike itself only guarantees work for the 51 who were made redundant for just four weeks on the extension of the refinery owned by the oil corporation. Other details of the deal struck by union officials are not clear. There were reports during the strike that Total and its sub-contractors had broken an agreement made during the winter strikes that there would be no redundancies while Italian and Portuguese workers remained on site.
What is unambiguous, however, is that 25% of workers normally involved in oil refinery construction are out of work and that the dole queue is lengthening hour by hour throughout the country. Warnings that the British economy is lurching towards a deeper crash as the banking crisis intensifies, will lead to even more rapid job losses, short-time working and demands for pay cuts and, as at British Airways, working for nothing at all.
The LOR strike showed that workers will fight back, given half a chance, and that anti-union laws that ban solidarity actions are no deterrence to the rank-and-file, even if they remain sacrosanct as far as the union leaders are concerned (who declined to make the walk-outs official for fear of being taken to court).
Ultimately, however, the cards remain stacked in favour of corporations like Total because they will still decide who works and who doesn’t, based on considerations of profit and nothing else.
Answering that, and to fight unemployment in a serious way, means challenging the ownership and control of the means to work. It requires a plan to transfer economic power into the hands of ordinary people, mobilising those in and outside the trade unions. Then a strategy could be developed to reorganise the economy in such a way that unemployment is eradicated, something that is not possible under capitalism generally and even more so at a time of global slump.
At the centre of this perspective has to be a campaign to remove the discredited and reactionary New Labour government from office now, rather than waiting for a general election and the seemingly inevitable return of the Tories. That would open up important issues about political power itself. Building a movement along these lines would build on the success of the LOR strike rather than waiting for the employers to strike back.